Collaborative dance troupe takes off in Hillsborough

Although Renay Aumiller lived in Hillsborough for six years, the award-winning choreographer had never produced a work there. At the time, that made sense: the city had no dance halls and no previous tradition of public performance in the genre. Instead, for decades before the pandemic, regional modern dance was largely centered in Durham, the longtime home of the American Dance Festival, one of the largest and oldest modern dance festivals in the world. Given the festival’s gravitational pull, Aumiller helped found Durham Independent Dance Artists, or DIDA, a coalition of choreographers that changed the face of local dance, raising visibility and production standards as they banded together to co-produce each other’s work over the seasons from 2014 to 2020.

Then COVID hit, and indie dance went dark for the most part. Agitations to initiate new works have repeatedly been thwarted by the unpredictable waves of the pandemic.

But during a lull last summer, Aumiller had an unexpected experience while attending a Last Friday art show along Hillsborough’s Riverwalk. Around a bend, she came across a large group that had gathered for one of the city’s first Dancewaves – a free monthly gathering of drummers, musicians and community members to dance outdoors. before dusk. Seeing some 200 people dancing in a Hillsborough park “just caught me off guard,” Aumiller recalls. “It was absolutely huge. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s an audience here to dance!’ »

After a coffee date around the same time with Stephanie Woodbeck, another Hillsborough resident and co-founder of the Tobacco Road Dance Productions dance mentorship project, the two began to notice how many dancers had always lived or recently moved to the city. Choreographer Jasmine Powell, who danced with Philadanco, had grown up here, as had Tobacco Road director Jess Shell and Aubrey Griffith-Zill, whose Living Arts Collective launched the Dancewave series last spring. Within the past year, dance choreographer and filmmaker Anna Barker, artistic director of real.live.people, had also moved to the city.

“I don’t think the artistic community here is still fully aware of established dance artists,” observes Woodbeck. “But we can do something about it.”

As the duo looked at all the local talent, Woodbeck and Aumiller wondered why they all needed to keep taking their art elsewhere. “It’s almost similar to when I lived in Brooklyn,” Woodbeck says. “I didn’t want to go to Manhattan on the weekends anymore.” Although she is sometimes happy to work in Durham and Chapel Hill, “I am in Hillsborough for a reason. My investment and my family are here. The art I make and the people I know are here in Hillsborough by design. Why can’t we plant these seeds here?

After Aumiller arranged a get-together for the sextet in May, they formed a group, Hillsborough Independent Dance Artists (HIDA), and gave a brief preview during that month’s Dancewave. The troupe then decided to self-produce their first exhibition, a collection of individual works, for this month’s Last Friday event at River Park.

Beyond that, this shrewd supergroup of veteran dancers is keeping their options open, carefully making unconventional choices for the remainder of their first year of existence.

They do not feature a formal performance season in their first year; after Friday’s screening, local audiences will have to wait for news on future shows. They do not accept the restrictions of traditional business structures. And although they pay homage to DIDA in their name, they are very careful not to copy their predecessor.

“What we are right now is a living organism,” Aumiller says, “and we’re trying to carefully define where the next step is.”

The reasons have as much to do with collaborative and community dynamics as they do with sustainability.

When Barker became the first artist presented by DIDA, in November 2014, she called the experience an “incredible lifesaver” for an artist who had never presented work at this level of professionalism before. “We were given all of these resources…the inner workings of how to show up and how to perform,” Barker recalled.

But it wasn’t particularly collaborative. With HIDA, she doesn’t feel like she’s being given tools and then fired to do her own thing. “It’s more about how we can come together, lean on each other for support, and create something that’s fluid,” Barker says. The group’s work is “much more like a collage” than a concert.

At this point in their career, everyone at HIDA is aware of the stressors that inevitably occur when artists attempt to perform.

Woodbeck vividly remembers having to use “all my energy and all my money” to produce his work. She acknowledges that the stakes with HIDA are still high; artistically, she feels responsible for bringing her best ideas to the group. “But because we’ve created this ‘I lean on you, you lean on me’ dynamic, it still feels very low risk,” she says.

By now, these artists are also aware of the exhaustion that the forced march of a formal season can impose. For Aumiller, the efficiency of the company with its resources and energy is important, “so whatever we produce, we are not going to burn out”. In the group’s conversations, she finds that the focus is “less on consumption and more on invitations to experience”.

Deconstructing the traditional consumer performance model is also important to Shell. “We don’t produce a front-of-stage show that you have to pay to come to,” Shell says. “It makes it more accessible, to re-engage with the community as a whole. To me, that seems really important now.

Exciting future projects could involve collaborations and installations in the city’s visual arts community. “There are more galleries in Hillsborough than grocery stores,” Aumiller says. “That says a lot about where the values ​​are here.”

Company staff will also hand out questionnaires at Friday’s performance, asking the Hillsborough audience what they want to see in the future.

Shell notes that the flexibility and openness in the first steps of the new venture stem in part from a truism she, Griffith-Zill and Powell encountered as students at the Carolina Friends School. According to the Quaker concept that truth is continually revealed, the group can freely evolve, change and fluctuate, responding to the needs and desires of the group and the surrounding community.

For Powell, whose Friday dance will focus on the history of Hillsborough’s black community, HIDA is about presence. “It’s about sharing our faces, our bodies and our stories. I didn’t know dancing could take place in Hillsborough because it wasn’t a big part of the arts scene. But we have the people, we want to plant the seeds and we’re not going anywhere.


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